A FEW MEMBERS of Brooklyn’s population, particularly some who could be described as being up in years and a few more who had no educational training, were said to have had a rather firm belief in the power and existence of supernatural things such as hants, ghosts and conjuration.
I remember a group of excited classmates telling me this tale one morning. They said they had been by a house to look at a woman who had a frog in her arm and that it was moving up and down. She was supposed to have been the victim of having had a spell put on her. No doubt that this person (if they really saw her) must have had some sort of moving tumor. Somehow, children’s fertile imaginations and the strange beliefs of some people led to the coining of this wild tale.
I also heard people speak of some certain person being conjured. This meant that through some inexplainable way, a person gained control over another person or the events in his or her life. For example, if a person suffered with what seemed to be an incurable disease, a believer in conjuration might exclaim, "He’s been conjured," or "Somebody has put a spell on him! A regular doctor won’t do him any good. He’s got to see a root man before that sickness will be straightened out."
I also remember hearing of a case in which a person tried to get another one’s luck by some curious doings such as sweeping dust and other mixtures under her doorstep. The one who was supposed to lose the luck didn’t take it lying down. Her retort was that she would like to catch her doing it. She’d take a stick and break her back.
There was an old man in our neighborhood whom we liked, but we thought of him to be awfully funny. I remember him as a jolly-faced old man who looked as if he wore an unusually amount of loose, floppy clothes. I think he delighted in building an aura of mystery and strangeness around himself by his actions, speech or any other means possible.
Grown-ups hardly noticed him, but children were tickled to speak to Dr. So and So. He was exceedingly polite and would acknowledge graciously any kind remark with a flourish, a low bow and a greeting in some supposedly French words. Children liked this and would giggle and nudge each other as they listened to this strange outpouring. They didn’t understand what he was saying, but it was always fascinating to meet him and have him talk a little bit in French.
I never knew why he was called doctor, and I don’t think there was any basis for this title. Children kept it alive by delightedly saying, "Here comes or there goes Dr. So and So!"
Some people who were known as root doctors were supposed to live on a few of the back streets. Clients were said to visit them in the dead of the night in order to secure charms to bring them good luck and get rid of any bad luck they might experience from time to time. A root doctor’s tools were supposed to consist of such strange ingredients as a black cat’s bones, strands of hair, pins and needles, a graveyard rabbit’s left hind foot and other unknown ingredients.
Sometimes a client would visit a local root doctor and meet with no success in having his problem removed. Then he might decide to go to South Carolina and try another man’s root power. Some people thought that root doctors varied in the potency of their charms and that some could do a better job than other. A root doctor from South Carolina had a reputation for action.
I heard one man joke about a person carrying a jody bag, whatever that was. It was supposed to have been something capable of getting things started and done.
The existence of hants and ghosts was also a much alive belief to some older people. This old superstition was festered and kept alive by telling children that some old deserted, run-down house in the neighborhood was haunted. Usually, they were old houses that sat far back in a yard among trees and thick shrubbery. The panes were often out of the windows, long green shutters hung limply on broken hinges, and the doors sagged half-open as if expecting unearthly visitors. The storyteller always stressed that someone had mysteriously disappeared in this house and was never seen again. Then came a few more very exciting details of strange animals lurking in the bushes and weird noises such as moanings and groanings being heard by people as they passed by at night. There was always an older child or somebody in the neighborhood to dispense these tales, and I heard my share of them. I liked to hear old or young people tell stories of long ago. If such a place was pointed out to me, I would help keep the tale alive by pointing the house out to my friends and whispering, "It’s haunted." I didn’t believe in hants or ghosts, but there was childish fascination for me.
When we passed such a house, we would run as if Marley’s ghost was pursuing us, especially if darkness was beginning to fall. After we reached what we considered to be a safe distance, backbones would suddenly stiffen and someone would explain, "I wasn’t scared. I ran just because the others ran." But sometimes we went home with suspicions that some funny doings were going on around that old house.
Some people spoke of the existence of the devil as a living personality that appeared at times to various individuals when they were doing wrong. Years ago, many older people looked upon dancing as a terrible thing to do. In their minds, the devil was closely associated with it.
The following old tale was related to me by someone with whom I came in contact, but I have forgotten the source of its origin.

Table of Contents